May 30, 2012

March-planted Tomatoes

We are very lucky to live in perfect tomato-growing country.

Tomatoes transplanted into the garden in March

Davis' heavy clay soil can be a pain in the garden, but the tomatoes sure seem to like it, which is why acres and acres of them are grown commercially on the outskirts of town. The question isn't whether I'll plant tomatoes in my garden, but when, and to answer that question I take a cue from Terra Firma Farm in Winters. Terra Firma starts planting tomatoes in the middle of March, when there is still a chance of frost. Mind, they don't plant all their tomatoes that early, but they do risk at least one early planting, and so do I.

Don Shor of Redwood Barn Nursery disagrees and says that tomatoes planted too early "sulk and don't grow." I'm sure he must have had that happen or he wouldn't feel strongly about it, but in this little corner of Davis I've had the exact opposite experience.

Tomato plants already 5 feet tall 

For example, last summer was unusually cool and most people in town had trouble harvesting many ripe tomatoes, especially if--like me--they planted mostly heirlooms, which can take longer to mature. I started tomatoes from saved seed in January and put over 30 plants in the ground in the spring of 2011. Would you like to guess which plants were the only ones to produce a meaningful crop? You got it: the four I planted on March 15th. The rest of them--put in the ground in late April and May--produced about a colander or two full of tomatoes, total (with the exception of the cherry tomatoes, but those are always early and bountiful producers.)

So, I'm willing to take a chance on March-planted tomatoes in Davis, especially when I've grown the seedlings myself for almost no cost, and when I have another 25 seedlings stashed away in the greenhouse ready to take their place if we have a late frost and the first bunch dies. So far, the gamble has paid off.

Cherry tomatoes will start to ripen soon

This is now the second year in a row that my March-planted tomatoes are looking fantastic as we approach June. Yes, I might get burned one year if Davis gets a late freeze, but as long as I consider them a gamble in the first place, I won't be upset if I lose. If you're going to try planting tomatoes early next year, I'd suggest starting with just a few; then if we get an unexpected hard freeze, you won't have lost a large investment of time or money. (Of course, if you garden in a climate significantly different than ours in Davis, this advice on timing probably doesn't apply.)

And just to be clear that I wasn't on the ball with all of my tomatoes...

Roma planted a few days ago

This guy flopped over before I could get a cage around it

Still in the greenhouse

Are your tomatoes in the ground yet? (It's not too late to try planting some!) Does planting tomatoes in March sound crazy to you?


  1. I planted some early girls in March. They did "sulk" for awhile with the crazy back and forth cold weather. But now going big guns! Tomatoes about 4-inch diameter so far. I had the same experience as you last year with the heirlooms...sad. But all the others did fairly well. I've rarely seen any freezes after March...just my experience of 30 years.

    1. You're going to have big, ripe tomatoes soon, then! I haven't done Early Girls in a couple of years because I switched to mostly non-hybrid so I can save the seeds, but I might have to go back to at least one or two Early Girl plants. I'll have cherry tomatoes soon, but it will be at least a few weeks on my bigger varieties.

  2. We didn't get out tomatoes in until around mid April. Trying to prep a new growing space for them so we could have more successful crop rotation. And now here we are in mid June, and our 30+ tomato plants are in danger of growing out the tops of their cages. I am working on a plan to extend them, but still not sure what I will do exactly. We will see. Tons of green tomatoes ready to ripen.

    I can't wait!

  3. BTW, how does your seed saving work? Do you get tomatoes "true" to their parents, or do you get crossed varieties? From what I understand, unless you plant all the same variety, you will inevitably end up with a hybrid plant from interplanted varieties. Does this seem true in your experience? I always just start with new seeds from one of my favorite heirloom seed companies.

    Anyway, just wondering.

    1. True enough so far, but this is only the second year I'm planting tomatoes from saved seed. I'll have to report back on that. I know the crossing is a big problem with squash, so I don't save that seed, but I think it's not such an issue with tomatoes for some reason.